Agouron Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Syntex Corp. announced today that they have formed a collaboration worth upward of $15 million to discover novel drugs for treating arthritis and certain malignant tumors.

Syntex (NYSE:SYN) will provide Agouron with $8.5 million in research funding over the next three years, with an option to pay out another $3.5 million to extend the collaboration for a fourth year. As well, Syntex of Palo Alto, Calif., has purchased 155,844 newly issued shares of Agouron stock (NASDAQ:AGPH) for $19.25 per share. For its $3 million in stock, Syntex receives a "little more than 2 percent" equity in Agouron of San Diego, explained Donna Nichols, Agouron's director of corporate communications.

The focus of the collaborative program is the design and development of selective inhibitors of one or more matrix metalloproteases (MMPs), a class of enzymes that has been implicated in the degradation of connective tissue in several disease states, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. There is also evidence that MMPs play key roles in the metastasis of malignant tumors. Agouron and Syntex will collaborate to design and develop orally active small molecule drugs that selectively inhibit these enzymes and halt the disease processes which they mediate.

"The collaboration plays to the strengths of both companies," commented Peter Johnson, Agouron's president and chief executive officer. Agouron will contribute its skill and experience in rational drug design based on the molecular structures of proteins that play key roles in human disease, while Syntex will bring its expertise in the field of arthritis research and pharmaceutical development to the collaboration.

"Syntex is the premier development partner in arthritis, with a well-established presence in the market," explained Agouron's Nichols. In fact, Syntex has been marketing Naprosyn, one of its prescription drugs for treating the pain and inflammation of arthritis, since 1976, according to Linda Thomas, Syntex's manager of media relations. Syntex is also investigating compounds for treating the disease rather than its symptoms, Thomas explained. The company has "many R&D programs aimed at a variety of targets, including MMPs," she told BioWorld. In its collaboration with Agouron, Syntex is" contributing its expertise in the MMP area so that the joint venture can then discover new MMPs," Thomas said.

Under the terms of the agreement, Syntex will have the exclusive worldwide right to develop and market products incorporating collaboratively discovered MMP inhibitors in defined therapeutic areas, including arthritis. Agouron will have the exclusive worldwide right to develop and market collaboratively discovered MMP inhibitors in defined therapeutic areas, including cancer. The two companies will pay royalties to each other based on their respective sales of such products. Agouron's stock was up 25 cents a share on Tuesday, closing at $8.50.

-- Jennifer Van Brunt Senior Editor

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